Indianapolis: Top Fuel preview

CLERMONT, Ind. - As Funny Car icon John Force might say in one of his patented rambles: Gary Scelzi's old hot rod has been pretty darn good this season. Quick and consistent, Scelzi's Team Winston dragster seems unstoppable -- at...

CLERMONT, Ind. - As Funny Car icon John Force might say in one of his patented rambles: Gary Scelzi's old hot rod has been pretty darn good this season. Quick and consistent, Scelzi's Team Winston dragster seems unstoppable -- at times untouchable by his challengers. With six victories in as many finals and seven No. 1 qualifying awards, Scelzi is crafting one of the greatest championship seasons in the history of the sport. A victory at the historic U.S. Nationals, Aug. 30-Sept. 4, at Indianapolis Raceway Park, would accomplish several goals for the 40-year-old driver and inch him closer to his most coveted prize: a third NHRA Winston championship. The $2.6 million race is the 17th of 23 events in the $45 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

A victory there - the dream race for all NHRA competitors - would move Scelzi into lone possession of the season win record for the 6,000 horsepower category. Scelzi is currently tied with eight others - a Who's Who list in Top Fuel racing -- for the record (six victories).

Scelzi could also join some elite company as a repeat winner at NHRA's 'Big Go.' Cory McClenathan was the most recent driver to win the historic race more than once, claiming victories in 1997 and '99. Don Garlits has recorded the most Indy victories - logging an impressive eight U.S. Nationals titles. Joe Amato, Gary Beck and Don Prudhomme have each won the event three times. More importantly, however, a win would put some distance between Scelzi and his current title pursuers. The Team Winston dragster driver currently leads the Winston points chase by 24 over defending series champion Tony Schumacher, a three-time winner this season. Larry Dixon, driver of the Miller Lite dragster and a two-time winner for the year, is a close third, trailing Scelzi by 78.

"Anything short of winning the Winston championship this season and bringing it back to the Team Winston pit would be a disappointment," said Scelzi, who has earned 20 victories in three-and-a-half seasons behind the wheel of the Alan Johnson owned and tuned machine, positioning the Fresno, Calif. driver in the top five among all-time Top Fuel winners. "I'm sure all the drivers feel the same way. We've still got some races to be won. Any of the cars in the top five could win at any moment."

TROXEL JOINS SCHUMACHER: Shirley Muldowney and Rhonda Hartman-Smith won't be the only female Top Fuel competitors entered in this season's U.S. Nationals. Melanie Troxel, who competed in a few races early in the season in a dragster fielded by Jerry Darrien, will make her debut in a second Top Fuel dragster owned by Don Schumacher. She will remain in the car for the balance of the 2000 season. Troxel's last event this season was in early April, when she qualified fifth at Las Vegas before losing in the first round to Doug Kalitta.

Troxel, from Littleton, Colo., will be teammates with the younger Schumacher, runner-up at the U.S. Nationals in 1996, his first Top Fuel event. Crew chief Dan Olson will make tuning decisions for both cars, which are expected to have different sponsors.

"I'm really happy that Melanie is joining our team," said her new teammate, a recent winner in Brainerd, Minn. "She's an awesome driver and great with the media and fans. We have a chance of putting together a Top Fuel team like John Force's operation in Funny Car. We just need to keep everything as close as possible on both cars."

EPLER RETURNS TO SCENE OF TURNAROUND: Although he didn't win the race, Jim Epler came away from the 1999 U.S. Nationals with something better than a trophy.

A revitalized career.

Last season at the prestigious event, the Phoenix driver made his debut in a second car for the Jerry Toliver-owned WWF Racing team. He left behind a sketchy record as an independent owner in the 6,000 horsepower category, which came to an abrupt end weeks earlier following a pair of engine explosions in back-to-back events in Seattle and Sonoma, Calif.

Epler, 42, immediately took advantage of his new situation and posted a runner-up finish in the event at Indianapolis Raceway Park. This season Epler is continuing the trend, remaining both competitive and consistent, as he has earned two No. 1 qualifying awards and scored a victory at Las Vegas. He's currently fifth in the Winston point standings.

"This is by far one of the best season's I've ever had in Funny Car," said Epler, who finished runner-up to Force in the recent event in Brainerd, Minn. "Our two teams came together pretty fast and we've got good chemistry. It's been a dream for me to be a part of this deal. I think our car is going to play a role in determining the Winston championship, and that's what it's all about."

CANNON GAINING CONFIDENCE: Scotty Cannon, driver of the radical Oakley Mad Scientist Chevrolet Camaro, has been making quick progress in recent weeks in the Funny Car category. Cannon has posted semifinal efforts at Columbus, Ohio and Sonoma, Calif., as well as a runner-up effort in Denver. The '99 Winston Rookie of the Year with the wild Mohawk haircut would like nothing more than to notch his first NHRA victory on the sport's biggest stage.

"I couldn't think of a better place to win than Indy," said Cannon, currently seventh in the Winston point standings. "We're holding our own pretty well right now. If we could get a win that would help us in the points. A top-five finish would be great for us this year, then we'll be in good position to run for the championship next year."

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Series NHRA
Drivers Shirley Muldowney , Larry Dixon , John Force , Rhonda Hartman-Smith , Joe Amato , Gary Scelzi , Doug Kalitta , Scotty Cannon , Don Garlits , Cory McClenathan , Don Prudhomme , Melanie Troxel , Jerry Toliver , Don Schumacher